Behind the store: Claire Distenfeld, Fivestory

6 Feb 2018

With her background in art, Claire Distenfeld operates her glossy New York boutique Fivestory with the considered eye of a gallery curator. It’s an approach that has gained her serious commercial success – the store added two more floors last year – and garnered her a reputation for picking out brilliant new designers. Five years in, we find out just what it takes to make it in this town and what the next five have in store.

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You worked in the art world before starting up Fivestory. What made you want to change careers?

While art was really fun to learn about, working in it didn't feel like the right fit. I had always really loved fashion, and have curated myself, the way I dress and the designers that I follow in the same way that I would curate an exhibition. I looked at the retail landscape and the world back then was a very scary place: the economy was still in the gutter, luxury was getting a bad rap and the Upper East Side was a wasteland. I had this romantic idea of what I could build.

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Five years in, what have been your biggest learnings?

First and foremost, mistakes are healthy: it’s important to learn from them and move on. Retail is like the weather, one day it's sunny and the next it's rainy. You just have to put your wellies on and hope the sun comes out again. I learnt that just because I built the company based on my taste and point of view, doesn't mean that the whole world will like it. Be a little humble and hire people who are good at the things that you’re not.

You were one of the first stores in New York to bring back a focus on customer experience – what does a great experience means to you?

It was all about the five senses – everything that a website couldn't give you. What songs are playing? What textures are on the walls? Your staff, how are they going to greet the customer? How are they going to treat the customer? The products were always going to deliver, my responsibility was everything else.

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Why do you think people like shopping in these lifestyle-oriented environments?

I think the customer is craving authenticity, so when you put things in a space which captures the soul of the person who created it, they respond better. They realise that we're not just trying to sell them a shirt, we're trying to sell them the experience, and that has no price.

How do you source the brands inside Fivestory?

In the beginning, I was just going out, travelling and really hustling. Now it's much easier. Instagram is unbelievable for finding new brands. And now people know what Fivestory is, new brands come to us.

What works and what doesn’t?

It’s always been from my gut. I see a brand [I love] and am bargaining with the designer about how quickly I can get it. I also have a team of people who look at numbers and analytics. It usually starts from instinct, but there’s a strategy behind it.

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What do you think makes a great designer in today’s world?

A designer who keeps their head down and is doing something fresh and new. I think that's why when we launched Rosie Assoulin, she took the world by storm. She never listened to anyone else. She has this unbelievable brain and insane creativity and just created straight from her soul. My favourite designer of all time is Dries Van Noten because he does his own thing; his creativity comes from the cultures of the world, rather than the designers of the world.

Which are your favorite places to shop (other than Fivestory!)?

The Dries store in Paris is the only place I have to go to when I get to the city.

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Much has been made of the New York “retail apocalypse” recently. What do you think retail needs to do to avoid this?

I don't think there's a retail apocalypse at all. Over 90% of transactions in the US are still done in store. Stores have to be more nimble, pivot and create more experiences, but you just have to be true to yourself.

What will Fivestory look like in another five years?

We're just going to continue to do what we do best: bring people exciting and beautiful curations of fashion, jewellery and luxury. My dream would be to create a whole wellness area, which is funny because it's so trendy now but I drank the Kool-Aid about 10 years ago. We’ve had astrologers in here, ayurvedic food, we've done everything. It’s hard to do it within in the store though, so ideally it would be this beautiful space dedicated just to that. But that's a dream, I don't know if that's happening anytime soon.

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